The late, great Dizzy Gillespie once said of jazz, “Men have died for this music. You can’t get more serious than that.”
No one ends up buried in Warren Leight’s Tony Award winner Side Man, the third and final play of the Banyan Theater Company’s summer season. But there’s plenty of death and melancholy to go around in his semiautobiographical tale of a family shaped by the father’s inability to focus on anything but the music that comes out of his horn.
The death may be figurative rather than literal. It’s in the end of a musical era, one where side men like young Clifford Glimmer’s father, Gene (Steve DuMouchel), happily played one gig after another with dance bands or in smoky clubs, hanging out until all hours and talking about music when not making it. It’s in the way the musicians who give up and turn to the straight life are eulogized as if they’ve passed away. It’s in the way Clifford’s mother, Terry (Roxanne Fay), becomes crushed and bitter through neglect and hardship, turning to cigarettes and booze for comfort.
We first meet Clifford (Juan Javier Cardenas) in 1985 in New York, where he’s meeting his now estranged parents at a turning point in his own professional life. He hasn’t seen his father in years, and the reunion is also a chance to see once more the friends and fellow musicians he grew up with: the lisping jokester, Ziggy (Dan Bright), the one-time heroin addict, Jonesy (Robert D. Mowry), and the ladies’ man lead trumpet, Al (Robert Herrle), along with a club waitress (Lauren L. Wood) who’s got a thing for jazz musicians. In the course of the play, we move back and forth in time in a jazzlike fashion, seeing the first meeting of Gene and Terry, relishing the good times in the early days of their relationship, and eventually, most heartbreakingly, seeing Cardenas as a younger Clifford, a kid forced to be the grown-up in an increasingly troubled marriage.
Juan Javier Cardenas, Roxanne Fay and Steve DuMouchel in the Banyan's Side Man.
It sounds sad, and it is. But there are also moments of humor in Leight’s play, as well as a deep understanding of the transcendent meaning music has for these side men of yesterday. That’s made manifest in a scene in Act II, where one of the guys turns up with a tape of the final performance of legendary jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. We hear that solo through their ears, so to speak, and watch as they’re transformed from down-on-their-luck has-beens to a state of exaltation.
That’s one of the evening’s strongest moments, and there are other memorable ones, too (as directed by Jim Wise), including a crucial scene where Terry goes ballistic in the shabby living room of the family’s New York apartment. The production doesn’t always draw every bit of the emotion it could out of Leight’s piece, but there’s certainly enough to impact us. Cardenas at the outset overuses a certain rueful laugh, but he’s deeply affecting in his scenes as the 10-year-old Clifford. DuMouchel doesn’t initially capture my physical image of Gene, but gradually convinces as a man only truly “there” when playing. And Fay in her later scenes of deterioration occasionally feels one-note, but then bursts through in a way that really shakes us. The supporting cast is just what they should be.
Side Man continues through Aug. 22 at the Cook Theatre; for tickets call 552-1032 or visit banyantheatercompany.com.